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Klezmer Guitar

There seem to be a lot of questions and not a lot of resources on Klezmer guitar and where/how it fits into the music given it first appears in this music during the revival. Being that Klezmer as a tradition is about bringing your own slice of Jewish music to the table, it shouldn’t exactly matter how you play guitar in a klezmer band; however, this ideology isn’t exactly practical for guitarists just wanting to know what to do in a Klezmer band.

Before addressing the roles in klezmer guitar-like instruments have played, it is important to note that Klezmer is inherently multi-cultural as it is a music of a diasporic people. To chase some sort of authenticity is 'inauthentic' to Klezmer. Violinist Alicia Svigals of the Klezmatics offers her own detailed manifesto concerning klezmer (Slobin, ed., American Klezmer, 217-9).

1. “No nostalgia:” klezmer does not “belong” to the older generation; it is just as legitimate when performed by younger musicians.

2. “High Jewish self-esteem:” klezmer is not about self-deprecation or creating a Jewish “Uncle Tom” character.

3. “Our own language:” recognizing the legitimacy of Yiddish as its own independent language with its own cultural milieu.

4. “No folk-fetishism or false definition of ‘authenticity:’” playing “authentic” klezmer does not mean playing it as it was in New York City during the 1920s, but rather playing with one’s own true musical passion and personal style

So, with authenticity now out of the picture, we can talk guitar as a global instrument, how it developed, who its ancestors were, and what role it has in ensembles.

Klezmer Instrumentation

The only two things you actually need in a Klezmer band are a lead player and someone to give that lead a context. If we are to reduce 19th century European Klezmer down to two instruments we would likely find violin at the helm and tsimbal (cymbalom) or brač violin as a chordal instrument. However many members played in the Kapelyes of old, the band very likely did not include a guitar. The instrumentation we're familiar with today, "...began in mid-nineteenth century Eastern Europe as Jews who had been conscripted into military service learned to play “field-appropriate” wind instruments." (Ryer 2020) This included marching snares, brass, and most notably the clarinet. American Klezmer (where we have most of our early recordings) became Brass heavy thanks to folks like Harry Kandel, who played the clarinet under John Philip Sousa after coming to the US (1906*). He later began to record Jewish music in 1917.

The presence of these louder marching instruments would have made an acoustic guitar almost inaudible. Early dance/Jazz bands would often have a much louder plectrum picked Banjo playing staccato chords to make a strong rhythm section. Though hard to hear in the old recordings, bands like Alexander Olshanetsky's Orchestra, Joseph Cherniavksy's Hasidic-American Jazz Band, Abe Schwartz, Dave Tarras, Al Glazer, the Broder Kapelle, and many other klezmer “orchestras” all had tenor banjos playing a percussive rhythm alongside the “trap-kit” drum sets of the time.

Boom chunk boom chunk

Often thought of as a lawless instrument, the guitar has a history and pedagogy that we can tun to when lacking a point of reference for its role in Klezmer ensembles. Historically strung with catgut, steel guitar strings were introduced near the end of the nineteenth century in the United States and Europe, nylon strings came in the 1940s, and Electric did not exist until the late 30's. Until then, a banjo would have been the most appropriate choice for a strummed chordal instrument to be heard.

Check out how the banjo cuts through an ensemble with strong downstrokes in this clip of Abe Lyman - Varsity Drag (1927)

The banjo is incredibly affective in playing a support role, providing rhythmic and chordal context to a melody. Ryer 2020 presents a table of how three Klezmer scholars have identified where certain instruments best fit amongst the categories of Melodic, Harmonic, and Rhythmic/Chordal. The utility of guitar-like instruments for accompaniment is clearly noted.

Though the placements of these instruments is in reality highly subjective, the separation of categories (Melodic, Harmonic, and Rhythmic/Chordal) proves useful in trying to find where the qualities of a chord instrument best fits.

Role and Hierarchy

The musicians of an ensemble each woking as an independent contractor is, in a sense, a modern idea. When discussing how pre 20th century European Klezmorim would train inside a familial structure, Sapoznik points to a hierarchy similar to what has been described to me of present day Manouche (Romani) communities.

Those starting, the youngest in a community, would be given roles on “support” instruments (chordal, percussive, rhythmic, low end) while simultaneously studying what other instruments were available to them. Klezmorim would move up the ladder (low fq -> high fq | rhythmic -> harmonic -> melodic) according to aptitude, experience, and proficiency. Lead playing is left in the hands of the most experienced/usually the band leader.

A Sinte musician (anonymous) had once described to me a sense of disappointment in how fewer people in his community wanted to play violin anymore and followed in the rising popularity of the guitar. Describing his upbringing; at a musical gathering within this community, a child would always accompany a parent and NOT the other way around. Tens of kids might be playing rhythm guitar, one or two on bass, and the lead/primarily monophonic instruments would be reserved for the elders. The elders would likely be proficient in all the rhythm instruments and some of the children (if shown promise) might be leaning lead or a lead instrument from a parent outside of a performance setting until they are old enough.

This is not to say that rhythm instrument is any less complex or requires less mastery, but that to make the music, one must pay their dues learning to support the music first. In large part I agree with this sentiment. I find that too often everyone wants to play lead, take a solo, or be the spotlight for some section of a song; this is especially bad in jazz circles, and in my opinion, often takes away from the music.

Just as Klezmer’s tradition holds a value of playing with one’s own true musical passion and personal style, I believe there is just as valid an argument that somewhere in that tradition are structures designed to serve the music above all else. So what can we do to serve the music?

Lead and Context

A Klezmer band needs a lead player and someone to give that lead a context. The common configuration of the earliest Klezmer we can think of is actually quite similar to modern Hungarian bands which typically a lead violinist (lead), second violin playing brač (harmonic/chordal), cello (bass), and Cimbalom (rhythmic/chordal). The introduction of instruments like clarinet (mid-19thc), piano, accordion, drums, brass, etc, give a new timbre but still play the same roles as these older ensembles.

So what do we like about the guitar and what can it do? How can one take advantage of the sonic and harmonic qualities of the instrument (acoustic or electric) and find where it best fits in this loose hierarchy?

To do this, I’d like to take a look at a world of musical traditions adjacent to Klezmer’s past as a jumping off point for how similar musics have integrated the guitar into one of these roles.

The Guitar

Given their titles as "folk guitars," nylon/catgut and steel string acoustic guitars are usually a first pick for a Klezmer ensemble that wishes to retain a certain 'old-wold' timbre, whereas the electric guitar's volume and control is truly great for ensembles where a guitar is a melodic/harmonic instrument. Though this is a nice dichotomy, it is not representative of what actually gets used in different world folk styles. As you will see in examples below, it comes down to what you own, what sound you want, and how loud you need to be.

As a polyphonic/chordal instrument capable of melody, chordal harmony, rhythm, and a highly percussive sound, the guitar presents many choices in the roles it could play. Given the limited roles of monophonic instruments, I would say the strength of the guitar is as a rhythmic/harmonic instrument which straddles the line between playing brač or cymbalom-like parts.

Percussive Playing

The most percussive of options would be to play the guitar in the role of the banjo in early American Klezmer Orchestras. This sound is made through closed voicings with muting done by lifting the left hand slightly off the strings. Here you can watch Benjamin Clement play a strummed Romanian guitar style to accompany an accordion.

Cymbalom/Brač Guitar

In this example we see these two approaches to guitar playing as imitations of these instruments. The first of which is a picked style which emulates a cymbalom by playing mostly individual notes around a chord shape. Later in the clip we see Limberger imitating Brač using voicings in the guitar's mid-range to emulate double stops.

Bass-Chord Rhythm Guitar

The intersection between the highly complex cymbalom style and the very percussive brač style is the combination of tenor and bass lines using a rest stroke to strike a single string in the low register and playing a chord starting on the next string. The style emulates klezmer piano, the bass side of the accordion, and of course, more rhythmic styles of tsimbl/cymbalom. The approach takes advantage of resonant open strings and is probably the most common style of European folk guitar.


Harmonic Role

So we've seen guitar back up lead instruments by imitating Brač and Cymbalom, but what if your group has these roles already? Watch how Zsolt Botos (rhythm guitar) uses single lines and arpeggios to add flare to the other rhythm instruments of the ensemble.


One thing you will notice amongst all the plectrum guitar examples above (acoustic/electric) is the consistent application of rest stroke playing. Though the guitar is a relatively new instrument on the world stage, the rest stroke picking *which was once the standard amongst guitarists* is as old as Klezmer itself. Pre-dating electricity, the technique provides greater volume and resonance from acoustic instruments. Here, Stéphane Wrembel and Josh Kaye showing the similarities between Oud and Guitar technique.

Of course all the styles above can be played without a pick but demands amplification to achieve the same effect when paired with anything louder than another guitar.



Less is more! Take advantage of the things your instrument can do that others can't. The guitar is versatile and can play a number of parts or imitate another instrument, so if that part is already being played by someone else, you have options. The key is to support the music

- Bea Carlson


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